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Automation connects 5G, Wi-Fi 6 and other networking trends

At IDC Directions, analyst Rohit Mehra discussed the role of automation in some of 2019's most talked about trends, including 5G, Wi-Fi 6, SD-WAN and the network edge.

BOSTON -- Which came first: the software-defined WAN or the network edge? Rohit Mehra, analyst and vice president of network infrastructure at IDC, said the relationship between the two is a lot like the chicken-and-egg debate, with a bit of automation sprinkled in.

At IDC's annual Directions conference on March 12, Mehra said SD-WAN has seen an incredible amount of market growth since 2016, and the natural progression of network evolution inevitably leads to the edge. Both SD-WAN and the edge rely on one another. The edge requires a dynamic WAN, and SD-WAN can benefit edge use cases -- the two are interlinked, like a chicken-and-egg scenario, he said.

Enterprise networking will see major changes and advances throughout 2019 due to other technologies, as well. Some of the major networking trends include 5G, 802.11ax -- or Wi-Fi 6 -- and Gigabit Ethernet (GbE). Overall, automation and its real-time capabilities play significant roles in all these rollouts.

Networking trends to keep an eye on

While many of these networking trends will see fairly minor deployments -- if any -- in 2019, the effect they have on the networking industry will be widely seen.

5G and 4G LTE. According to Mehra, 5G is approaching quickly. Select cities worldwide will be lit up with 5G by the end of 2019, while businesses will roll out 5G in experimental phases focused on 5G fixed wireless, he said.

Wireless 5G -- with its broadband-like capabilities -- and the addition of automation will make 5G a "major, once-in-a-lifetime event," Mehra said. Automation adds speed and agility to 5G capabilities, which make it a compelling use case for businesses. But widespread 5G rollouts aren't realistic this year, he added.

"While we wait for full-blown 5G, the use of 4G LTE by the enterprise is becoming more widespread," he said.

Over the last few years, 4G LTE has evolved, allowing it to mature into a technology that could compete against traditional business-class wireless technologies.

The mobile consumer side likely won't see the benefits of 5G until 2021.

"For users to benefit from 5G, everyone needs a 5G-enabled handset," Mehra said. "We're two or three years from that."

Network edge. The edge has grown in importance, as increased network complexity requires improved network visibility. End-to-end visibility requires automation -- whether it's used at the enterprise edge, the IoT edge, the cloud edge or the compute edge -- and is crucial in ensuring networks operate properly in several different use cases, according to Mehra.

"If you look at healthcare, utilities, mining and manufacturing, all of these IT-related actions happen at the edge," Mehra said. "For that edge to succeed, you need a more dynamic WAN and connectivity."

Automation enables dynamic WANs that respond in real time and enhance customer experience at the edge. Automation coupled with 5G for wired or wireless networks can benefit the edge due to 5G's long-distance communication capabilities, Mehra added.

Another technology that benefits the network edge is SD-WAN, which is a dynamic WAN itself.

SD-WAN. SD-WAN is a building block toward an autonomous network, Mehra said, but automation also applies to SD-WAN. The SD-WAN market is growing, and while it hasn't yet reached mainstream, its time is fast approaching. The need for automation has also advanced this growth, as automation can be built into the software.

"As the market moves to a more holistic approach to SD-WAN, we feel it'll be an enabler of newer edge architectures," Mehra said. "While SD-WAN looks at the conduits for connectivity, wide area networking is the pipe that connects you."

SD-WAN and automation allow for a more dynamic edge, which closely connects these networking trends.

Wi-Fi 6 and 400 GbE. Also known as 802.11ax, the new Wi-Fi standard's projected release date is late 2019. Wi-Fi 6 promises real-time responses and aspects, as well as multiuser-MIMO and orthogonal frequency-division multiple access (OFDMA).

"On a client-by-client basis, using MU-MIMO and OFDMA, Wi-Fi 6 provides a best-in-class experience and automatically makes changes in its own architecture to support that," Mehra said. "Think self-driving networks coming to Wi-Fi."

Although Wi-Fi 6 touts agility, scalability and real-time responsiveness, Mehra said multi-GbE will suffice for enterprises at this point.

"The 400 GbE use case is clear for the data center, but I think multi-gig to 100 GbE is more than sufficient in the enterprise, even with Wi-Fi 6," he said.

Most 400 GbE deployments will begin in 2019. The 400 GbE switches will start as spine or core switches in hyperscale data centers and as leaf or spine switches in private and public cloud data centers, Mehra said. Wi-Fi 6 and 400 GbE will not become mainstream until 2023.

Think before you deploy

Despite the hype enveloping these technologies, Mehra said he encourages enterprises to take a step back and not get carried away with excitement over new networking trends.

"We all know the buck never stops with any technology," Mehra said. "There's always something better around the corner."

Overall, it's important for each individual organization to weigh its options when deciding the best tools and technologies.

"As all new technologies come and go, there's a lot of hype. The market is exploding, but we need to be pragmatic and cautious with the rollout," Mehra said.

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